Prof. Ben Rickayzen: Reasonableness Test the Crux of an Actuary’s Work

Professor Ben Rickayzen is the Head of the Actuarial Science Faculties at City University and Cass Business School.

He graduated with a Maths degree from Nottingham University and joined the then consulting firm of Bacon & Woodrow (now part of Aon Hewitt). Whilst there his best client was the Royal Household Pension Scheme and he attended meetings in Buckingham Palace.

He joined the City University in 1994 where became Head of the Faculty in 2008. His research is focused on care for the elderly and its funding, as well as obesity.

He enjoys chess, Sudoku and spending time with his three sons.

Jasmine and Mufadzi interviewed Professor Rickayzen recently.

Professor Rickayzen, we noticed you studied Mathematics at the University of Nottingham. At what point did you decide you wanted to be an actuary and why did you decide to do Maths?

I'm unusual in that I wanted to be an actuary early on in my life. We had friends whose daughter was an actuary and I was intrigued as to what her job was. I always loved Maths, it was the only subject I could do. When I was about 15 she was a qualified actuary and I spoke to her about her work. The use of mathematics, probability and statistics, investment works, etc., intrigued me. All these sounded like good things to be involved in. At that time, I decided that I probably would want to become an actuary, but obviously you never know.

After you left university, you went to work for Bacon & Woodrow, a consulting firm. What led to the decision to go to a consulting firm rather than, let's say, and insurance house?

That's an interesting question. Obviously, I had never worked in either. Work experience was never really done in those days. It was a very different environment to now. I didn't know what each would be. However, I did speak to actuaries about the differences. People generally said that when working in an insurance company, the work you did was more predictable and possibly less interesting. But, you get through the exams because it'd give you more time to leave the office on time.

Whereas, being in consultancy, it would be more exciting, but you might be slightly less in control of your workload. I knew, and it's still true today, that getting the first job is the hardest thing. It wasn't as if I was particularly targeting a consultancy over an insurance company. So, as it happens, I went to work at Bacon & Woodrow.

Did you enjoy your time there?

Yes, very much. I'll tell you the interview process because it compares with what you have now. Two partners at Bacon & Woodrow interviewed me for an hour. Afterwards I was interviewed by HR for about an hour. Then I was taken out to lunch by a trainee actuary who would no doubt report back on me, saying that I could use my knife and fork correctly.

The next day I received a job offer through the post. I didn’t have to go through all the psychometric tests, or anything else that you have now. It was a completely different world. That kind of puts in context what was going on in 1984.

When the clients asked you questions, you'd have to jump right to it. You'd have to answer whatever they'd wanted and they were interested in, which wouldn't necessarily be the thing that I would be interested in doing. Also, you might be dropping everything like a study day to answer the questions that very day or the next day. It just meant that everything was just a bit uncertain.

The best client I had was the Royal Household Pension Scheme, covering everybody who worked for The Queen. We used to have meetings at Buckingham Palace. I went about a dozen times to Buckingham Palace. There was nothing better than sitting in a black cab and saying, "Buckingham Palace, please."

While you were at Bacon & Woodrow, you were also studying for your exams to qualify as an actuary. Were there 15 exams back then just like it is today?

No, there were ten exams. You had six early exams that were equivalent to CT1 to CT8. CT9, Business Awareness, didn't exist. They were slightly different subjects. The one big difference is we didn't have Financial Economics. You had four later subjects, which were compulsory. That was Life, General, Pensions and Investment. You'd have to take one of those subjects to the specialist level and the other three at kind of a normal level. I took Pensions at the specialist level. That's ten exams to do, and the specialist level was the Fellowship paper.

Which exams did you find particularly difficult or easy?

I always had problems with the first set of exams I ever took for anything: at school, university, anything. It was always a disaster, even if I worked incredibly hard. In my first year in doing my exams, I was doing the equivalent of CT1 and CT5, which was the absolute standard combination in those days that got you underway. I managed to fail both of those.

I kind of knew that was going to happen. It was something about how my brain operates, I had to get used to a first set of exams. So, obviously, that was a disastrous start. As it happens, I'm now a major examiner for CT1 - clearly, I understood the course. I [also] needed to re-sit the General Insurance exam once and the Pensions exam once.

How did you balance your studies, work and having a life outside of work?

I knew from early on, from having spoken to actuaries, that to some extent I would have to put social life on hold. It was the first time I'd ever lived in London, so I did actually manage to have something of a social life.

But, I actually spent a lot of time concentrating on the exams. Typically, I'd get one day of study leave, so I'd be working at home. I chose a Wednesday. I'd be working the evenings of the other four days. On a Saturday and Sunday, I would probably be putting in about four hours each day. On a Wednesday, I'd be working all day. I wasn't doing the washing or anything.

In terms of study leave, I was absolutely studying. I played in the orchestra, so I made sure my study day was the day when there was orchestra in the evening. I chose a day where there might have been an evening event, because you can't just work morning, afternoon and evening productively. That was what kept the social life going. Also, I was a key chess player, so I factored that in as well.

You mentioned that you specialised in Pensions. Why did you choose Pensions?

It chose me. In those days, the big areas to be in, and this shouldn't surprise you, were Pensions and Life Insurance. To put it in context, there was no Investment department at Bacon & Woodrow, or anywhere. Bacon & Woodrow were one of the first to set one up and that was with two people. That was about 1986 or 1987. There was no Investment specialist work going on, it was a very unusual thing to do.

They had only just developed the General Insurance exam and there were virtually no general insurance actuaries around. When I was doing the General Insurance exam, I was lucky enough to be put in a tutorial group to help study support with a qualified General Insurance actuary. That was quite unusual, but he was very useful as a tutor for this subject. It gives you an idea of how General Insurance was yet to develop. It has obviously taken off since then.

You did mention your family has a lot of academics. Fast forward to ten years later to your decision to move from Bacon & Woodrow to get into academia. What thought process went into that?

There were a few factors. One was that the workload was unbalanced from my point of view. I think I found it quite unsettling never being in control of my workload or questions I'm being asked to do. I certainly liked the idea of teaching and research. I didn't really know what it would be like because I hadn't done it yet so, the teaching definitely appealed. I think that was in the blood.

 The other thing's that, this was the early 90's, the world had changed then. We were in a recession. It was a much harder place to be. It wasn't just at Bacon & Woodrow; it was at all the companies. There was always the threat of redundancy. You'd have to fully justify all your fees and charges and how you spent your time to your client because the client, at that stage, was always querying the fees. It proved to be a good decision.

What sort of things or skills did you learn while working in a consultancy that you still use till today?

The absolute first is, and I lecture on this as well, the reasonableness test. Not just producing models or mathematical equations or this or that and looking at the result. It's about standing back and looking at why the result is what it is.

I was also a team leader so I was managing teams. That didn't always go brilliantly. There was one particular person - a very shy person. It didn't matter how I approached her, whatever I said, she would always jump about ten feet in the air! We just didn't connect.

I had to learn how to deal with people. Obviously, in my team of about ten people there were many different personalities. Some we clicked with, some less so, but you've got to make the whole thing flow. I learnt an awful lot about how to be able to deal with different personalities, which was crucial.

You mentioned talking to junior members of staff today. What is your role today, apart from obviously teaching students?

I'm Head of the Faculty of Actuarial Science here and I have been for eight years. In the faculty there are 25 staff. One of my big roles is the senior management role of leading the direction of the faculty and controlling the workload of the faculty to make sure everybody is treated fairly in terms of the teaching they give and the other duties they're given. For example, being course director or admissions tutor, to make sure it's all fairly put on to different staff.

That's a huge aspect of what I do, the senior management role as well as being involved in the direction of the school itself. So, it's not just the faculty, I'm attached to the part we play in the school and also I'm on the executive committee of the school which means I'm in charge of the direction that Cass takes or their strategy and I enjoy that.

I teach. The interesting thing is that students would never realise, although we're called teachers and lecturers, actually a very small percentage of our time is spent teaching. I would say I teach courses that amount to about 110 hours a year, but if we were doing say a 35-hour week, that's about three weeks of teaching out of 52 weeks and people are thinking, “What are you doing for the rest of it?”.

Most people are not doing huge amounts of [teaching] because a lot of our time is spent on research. Apart from the management responsibility, which takes up probably two days out of five and teaching, there is research. My research interests are all to do with health - things particularly like how to care for the elderly, how to fund it.

I've also been involved in obesity research, measuring the years of life lost through being obese and what is the best obesity measure to use because it's actually not the BMI, it's the waist to height ratio. It's a much better measure that people should use, so we're trying to convince people how, at NICE, that that is a better measure to use. We quantify the years of life people lose through being obese either by BMI or waist to height ratio. It's a variety of research topics within health and that's where my PhD was as well.

Since qualifying as an actuary, have you done any further studies?

I started at Bacon and Woodrow in 1984, qualified in 1990 and then left to come to City University in 1994. During this time I was working on my PhD thesis, which I submitted in 2007. So that’s my further study if you like! I have been involved in research and I have published several papers as well over the last 20 odd years. The last exam I wrote was in 1990, which is such a relief!

What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring actuaries?

I do not have one particular piece of advice, but I will give several. In terms of employability, you need to be rounded. It’s not just about getting a good degree and getting your exemption, which is already expected. What makes you stand out is your story, what you have contributed apart from your studies during the last three or four years.

You need to be able to work in a team, as well as take the initiative to be a team leader. You can demonstrate these qualities by working for a charity, running societies and sport amongst other things. Having a first class degree on its own is not going to excite an employer. Communication skills are also very important.

In terms of being a good actuary, it is important to always apply the reasonableness test.  You need to able to see whether what you have calculated makes sense, you cannot always be reliant on the computer. Clients are not always going to be that sophisticated in their knowledge so you need to able to explain and communicate your findings in a way they can understand.

You mentioned briefly before that you used to play in the orchestra and chess as well, what are your favourite hobbies?

I used play the violin in an orchestra however an illness a few years ago meant that I could not play anymore. I used to play chess as well at county level but because I had to do lots of theory before playing a game because I was playing at a high level, I eventually lost interest. But I do still love chess, but not playing competitively. I do enjoy Sudoku as well. I have three boys as well, so I would say they are my biggest hobby!

Do you have any exam tips for us?

Yes I do!

  • Back when I was studying for my exams, I would study for 40 minutes and then take a break for 20 minutes listening to music on my iPod and then back on for 40 minutes. All day. This is how I studied for my Maths degree and actuarial exams.
  • When you take the exam, if there are 180 minutes and 100 marks i.e. 1.8 minutes per mark you need to be disciplined enough to move on to the next question when time is up. I would actually advocate 1.5 minutes per mark so that you have half an hour at the end to go over your work and redo any questions you feel you can answer better.
  • Always start with a question you can do. The psychological effect will be good for you, as it helps settle your nerves at the start of the exam.
  • Use mark guide to work out how many points you should make.
  • Remember to always state the obvious; this often gets you more marks than making some complex comments first.
  • Do not panic.
  • Practise the mock exams in timed conditions.
  • Do not look at solutions too quickly when practising past papers, you need to have a good go at the question first and get the most out of it.
  • Read a question at least three times before answering in order to avoid answering the wrong question.

We thank Professor Rickayzen for his interesting contribution to the development of actuaries.


Murray Van Zuydam: 14 Years of Actuarial Insight

We at recently had the privilege of speaking with Murray Van Zuydam. Murray is a fully qualified actuary with over fourteen years of experience in the life insurance industry. With these credentials, one can be certain that he has a wealth of knowledge about the actuarial sector. Fortunately for both the young and even experienced actuaries in the industry, Murray has set up his own business, called SUM Actuaries Ltd., which provides training solutions, in the form of continued professional development, team building and board training. Read on for tips and advice on how to approach exams, gain an insight into what it is like working for an actuarial firm, and also learn more about Murray's exciting new business venture.


What motivated you to pursue a degree in actuarial science?

I enjoyed maths and physics at school. From that natural enjoyment of problem solving and the concepts behind it, I liked the idea of a career in finance. The role of an actuary was rated quite highly in terms of careers. The more I looked into the related technical challenges of it, as well as the ability to progress within a company, the more drawn I was to it.


As you mentioned, actuaries are ranked quite high on the jobs list. The WSJ recently said that it was the number one job in the world. In your opinion, why is that the case?

I think it has a lot to do with the type of person that is drawn towards the career. If you’ve made it all the way through to qualifying, because it takes such a lot of commitment to do this, one would assume that you actually enjoy it. You have to enjoy your work and the challenge behind it in order to progress forward. Also, the thing about being an actuary is that there is more to it than just specialised mathematical skills. Actuaries often find themselves in product development, pricing and marketing as well. There are many different ways in which you can use your actuarial skills.


So, being an actuary isn’t just about having the numerical skills or technical know-how. What are some of the other attributes seen in a successful actuary?

You need to be able to communicate with people. The Actuarial Profession is always talking about how important that is. I’m actually writing a book on trying to bridge the gap between the actuary and the executive who makes the decisions. Actuaries have the skills to come up with powerful insight but unless we get our CFOs, marketing directors and CEOs to buy into them, they aren’t going to go anywhere. And if that keeps happening, it’s going to be a huge waste of time and money. Negotiation skills, being able to communicate, and being assertive when needed is crucial. Actuaries generally go up to management levels very quickly and having the skills in being able to deal with the supporting staff is crucial. How you motivate your team not only helps you get the most out of them, but is also important for their careers. The more you help them, the better. In the same context, that’s why students need to be motivated in order to pass the CT exams. If they are working and studying at the same time, the motivation would help them pass exams more quickly, and they would become stronger individuals. This would in turn, reflect in their work.


On that same point, why is it that actuaries so often become CEOs of insurance companies or senior advisors at consultancies?

I think that’s because the skill that we have in actuarial work and the insight behind it is so vital to running a company and making decisions, that we are drawn into a lot of new things. The actuaries that express their opinion and are able to persuade other people tend to be in a leadership position in a meeting and are involved in a wider work environment as well.


You were working in product design and development while also studying to become a fully qualified actuary. How did you manage to juggle both work and studies at the same time?

You have to work out what your priorities are, and work out how you are going to achieve them. There are three things you will need to manage – your work quality, your studies, and your social life. And yes, it is hard to balance all three. When you get to that stage where you want to really push through exams, you have to make your studies your top priority. Your number one development objective has got to be that you progress in your actuarial studies, and if you don’t focus on that, you may find yourself limited in your career advancement. So it’s best to have your priorities in line from the beginning. In actuarial studies, you see a lot of people who are really good at it and race through exams, and yet you also see another group of people who take a long time to get through and sometimes get disheartened along the way. To battle through these exams, you need to strategise.


Can you tell us about your study techniques and how you approached the CT exams?

I actually honed my study technique as I went along. I passed most of my CT exams at university and I found that you usually get through them by throwing a lot of effort in; but technique is much more important once you get to the later exams. That’s when you have to focus a lot more on the technique rather than just spending hours studying. You could ask people who did the more mathematical earlier exams what order they did the questions in. They would probably say that they started with question 1 and tried to work through the questions as quickly as possible. For the later less mathematical ones, you have a reading time, so what do you do during this time you have been given? There are normally one or two very tough questions in the exam. Some people attempt these questions first, while their mind is fresh and they are ready to go. I, however, would do those questions last. My theory behind that was that subconsciously, I would work through or think about the harder questions while answering the easier ones. So during the reading time, I would figure out which the hard questions were and leave them for the end.


A lot of actuarial students would say that even with three hours, it’s difficult to actually complete all the given questions in an exam. How did you tackle this problem?

My theory is, at the end of an exam, if I’m tired or short of time, I’d rather lose out in the hardest question than in questions that I can score marks in. As far as exam technique is concerned, going through the paper, I would answer the questions from the easiest to the hardest. I’d make sure I start answering each question on a new page and leave space, so that I could come back to it if I needed to. With the really hard questions, especially if they are broken down into many sub-parts, I’d say, make sure you read all the parts to the question first so that you know the direction in which the question is going. That sometimes helps you answer one part if you know where the next part is going to end up. Thinking through the question is important. To tackle the issue of time, my advice to other people is to bear in mind that you need to score 1.8 marks per minute. With that as a rule, I’d end up attempting to get 1 mark in 1.5 minutes. That way, I would get half an hour free at the end of the exam. I was very strict as I worked through, so if I had a 10-mark question and my 15 minutes were up, I’d finish the sentence and move away. It didn’t matter if I had more points to add to my question because I had half an hour at the end to come back to it. With this, I forced myself to hit every question. In the half hour at the end, I could go through all the questions once again, add to the answers if needed and pick up any extra marks that I might have had missed. One of the fears that most people have is not finishing the paper, and to tackle that, you need to find a way to allocate your time to the easiest marks, and this is a good way to do that.


Thanks, Murray! I’m sure a lot of our readers would really benefit from that exam strategy. Now could you please give us an overview of what it was like working for Skandia?

Skandia’s a company that’s owned by Old Mutual, and I think they are rebranding at the moment to Old Mutual Wealth. I worked at Old Mutual in South Africa for eight years and then came across here and worked at Skandia for six years. The two companies, in many ways, are very similar but also quite different. There are the same underlying challenges in the work they give you. If there are any issues, you have to make sure that you are able to negotiate with people, motivate them and get them to try out what it is you are trying to achieve. The thing that I miss most about working at Skandia, are the people. One of the things I’ll always be thankful for is how welcoming they were. It’s a small company, that is, if you compare it to other companies; which means you get to know a lot of people from different aspects of work. It’s also a good atmosphere and for most people it’s quite easy to fit in. I also didn’t feel like the actuaries there were treated differently, which is very important as actuaries should always be integrated with the rest of the company.


What eventually prompted you to leave Skandia?

I was really drawn towards the idea of training people and also opening up my own company. From my entire work experience, the part I have enjoyed the most has always been presenting and being in front of people. Whether it is presenting to financial advisors, or presenting to the claims assessment team, or the directors at Skandia, I enjoyed that interaction. That gave me the idea of setting up a company where I would do training and interacting all the time. I liked the idea of having a job where I did all the good bits and the parts that I enjoyed the most. I didn’t like the thought of waking up on the day that I retire and thinking, “Oh, I should have tried that”. 


Of course. And now in your current business, are you dealing with actuaries or are you getting work from non-actuarial environments as well?

At the moment I am focussing on my book. The purpose behind that is to try and bridge this gap between actuaries and non-actuaries. At my company, SUM Actuaries, we want to train actuaries in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in a different way than we usually get in CPD courses. We are pushing to try and get marketing directors, boards and program managers to buy into the value that actuaries can give them. Training is there to show what their actuaries are capable of developing, and also to help the actuaries to get this message across.


Murray, tell us a little bit more on what this CPD course entails and how it is different from the usual CPD courses.

If you google ‘enterprise risk management’, you’ll find a lot of theories and definitions. In reality, there is a lot of value underneath it, however it takes a while to find it. A lot of it, we tend to pay lip service to. We talk about how important it is to keep our stakeholders informed and to have a feedback loop. With most CPD courses, you have a lecture or a meeting about this and afterwards, you end up going back to your desk, back to your work and not really applying what you’ve just been taught. What we are trying to do with this training course is expose you to the theory and also give you a chance to apply it. Our course has been designed so people can take risk management theories and then apply them through puzzles and activities done under time constraints. So people get a chance to make mistakes in a safe environment and see the practical value of risk management. By doing this, it can then be applied in the work environment to effectively tackle problems, efficiently manage departments and earn money for the respective companies.


Thank you. Lastly, what advice would you give to our readers who already are or are thinking of embarking upon an actuarial career?

Before you start, there is a lot to be read about how tough the exams are and how long it takes. The reality is that it’s a significant commitment. It’s usually quicker to become a medical doctor than it is to become an actuary. Even though there are a lot of people out there to help you, it’s 95% your own effort. You need to be a self-starter and be able to put in a lot of very long, hard hours to get through. It’s worth it in the end but you must remember that it takes a lot to get through. The best study tip I can give is - write down your study hours. It keeps you aware of how many hours you are putting in and reminds you of your target. I used to have a target of studying for at least an hour during weekdays, and six hours every Saturday, Sunday or study day. As you can see, if you had that on top of a work pile, that’s a significant commitment, so that’s why if you don’t write down your hours, it will feel like you are working 24/7. If you are at university doing an actuarial degree, you can enjoy the university lifestyle and freedom, but also have a specific study structure in mind. It plays a big part in helping you grow up and become an adult. The way that a bachelors degree is set up, it gives you a taste of whether actuarial science is for you, and if it is, it is an easy way to be able pick up the CTs and then progress your actuarial career.


Thanks for your time today, Murray! It’s been good to speak to you and no doubt, we will again in the future.


To find out more about SUM Actuaries and the training courses provided, please email, or check out the website here.

The Importance of Continuing Professional Development

Knowing the right formulae and various theories is important in the actuarial field; and so is professional development. SUM Actuaries Ltd goes beyond just the theoretical training an actuary needs. Through their seven hour weekend training course, you would learn how to practically apply the concepts that you, as aspiring or experienced actuaries, have learnt.

The event takes place on the 19th of April at Wokefield Park and the pictures on the online poster here. It should be enough to show you how exciting and adventurous it is going to be! Those who are interested in Enterprise Risk Management are especially encouraged to sign up for this course. For more information, please email SUM Actuaries Ltd directly at: or check out their facebook page here.

In addition to this, will be interviewing Mr. Murray van Zuydam, the brains behind this project. Mr. van Zuydam is a qualified actuary and has had fourteen years of experience in the Life Insurance industry; so do keep an eye out for an insightful interview with him on this CPD course, as it could prove immensely valuable for your career and future.

Young achiever - Marjorie Ngwenya

Young achiever - Marjorie Ngwenya


It's the "resolution" time of the year. Looking back, 2012 has been an overzealous year filled with unexpected turnover of events. Despite all odds many amongst us made a successful mark at their exams. September 2012 saw a batch of 186 newly qualifying actuaries completing all the requirements for the class of Fellowship at the institute of Actuaries.


Methodical planning besides high mathematical ability leverage the core competencies of a budding actuary. Most of all It takes unflinching determination to set sail against unpredictable life outcomes and surrender to the underlying needs within the professional academia. Those of us still trekking their way through the odd bumps in qualifying exams, I trust you'll make good use of this time of the year to reflect on strategies, stay motivated and renew resolutions!


Earlier in October interviewed a young actuary Marjorie Ngwenya who shared with us her experiences spanning an actuarial journey as a student; trainee actuary; editor of The Actuary magazine and as a contributor to the professional services. As the wise would say - there's a lot to learn from the experienced (and the quick learner)... so read on folks!


About the interviewer:
Marjorie Ngwenya is a Director at Mazars with over 3 years of experience working as a qualified actuary. Formerly the Editor of The Actuary magazine UK, she is a member of the Chartered Management Institute; Audit & Governance Committee at Institute and Faculty of Actuaries; Council Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and Board member at the Legal Assistance Trust.


What made you decide to become an Actuary?

I knew I wanted to follow a profession and maths was my strongest subject at A Level. Becoming an actuary was an unusual but well-respected career to follow in Zimbabwe where I was raised. It promised great career satisfaction and financial rewards. All things considered it was appealing enough to pursue.

You were unable to complete your university degree in actuarial science due to circumstances at the time, what kept you going to achieve entry into your dream career?

Being unable to complete the degree program did not deter me from wanting to qualify as an actuary. I was determined that I would make it happen and fortunately had supportive employers who made it possible.


How did you manage to the demands of working and setting aside time to study for exams?

I work well under pressure and if I have something to look forward to. Arranging holidays or social outings through the year meant I was sufficiently motivated to spend some of my weekends and evenings studying.


While you were studying, what was your study technique?

I work best in the mornings. I would wake up early to begin studying and take breaks throughout the day to stay fresh. I work well with music or white noise in the background. If I was practicing exam papers however I’d use a meeting room in the office or go to my local library.


Did you start off with working in an actuarial firm? Where was your first actuarial break?

I started working in the personal tax department at Deloitte. I subsequently transferred internally to their pensions actuarial team.


Looking back, do you have any habits from when you had just began working which you still practice?

Working and studying meant that I had to manage my time well so I got into the habit of writing a to-do list at the beginning of each week. I still do so every Monday.


Tell us something about your experience as Editor of the Actuary magazine. What was it that attracted you to the role?

I enjoyed the creative aspects of the role, working with a fantastic volunteer team and the opportunity to meet people inside and outside of the profession. It was also a great way to be of service to the profession and learn a lot at the same time.


Do you think it is a good idea for soft skills training to be embedded into training from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries?

Yes I do and I believe that is already taking place with the Core Applications examinations and Professional Skills training. The workplace is also a good place to put these skills into practice.


What is your proudest moment within your career? Any regrets so far?

I have many proud moments and serving my profession as a member of Council is one of them. I don’t believe in expressing regret, I learn from each decision I make and take a forward looking approach.


Is it important for students at entry level, apart from their good training and study support, to be looking at potential soft skills training within their employment?

Yes, it is a competitive employment market and those students with broader skills will stand out more to potential employers. Technical skills are still very important and a pre-requisite to delivering on performance expectations.


If you were advising students either at university or coming in at the entry level, would you advise them to make a particular focus on big projects (e.g.: Solvency II) coming through for their career path or make sure they are surrounded by experienced people who they can learn from?

I would encourage them to develop a broad base of skills in their early career and to be informed about all the practice areas in the profession. Once their exams are behind them or they have a few years of work experience they can start to focus on areas of interest or industry demand from an informed point of view.


What advice would you give to students who are considering an actuarial career or have decided to embark on one?

To keep an open mind. Actuarial skills are transferrable and can add value in many industries. The learning never stops so embrace it!


Thanks Marjorie!

And thats it from the team this year. Best wishes for the season and a Happy New Year 2013!


Nivedita Hanra
Editor –

** The views expressed are Marjorie's own and not necessarily aligned to those of the working party or her employers. interviewed Marjorie via email responses in October 2012. 

Grant Thornton – employer’s perspective!

     Grant Thornton – employer’s perspective!

Welcome to our brand new employers perspective series. Watch this space where plan to bring you interviews whilst sharing ideas and challenges industry thought leaders are experiencing. This feature is part of our knowledge sharing series and will include conversations with some well know actuarial professionals and academics.

The world within which an actuary operates is changing rapidly – from the fairly expected regulatory facelifts to unpredictable tsunamis, life expectancies and the ever changing English weather! Apart from being extensively numerical, the new world actuary rapidly adapts to real world challenges and increasingly learns newer skills. Far from being a standstill, actuarial curriculum involve constantly evolving experiences combining economic sense, technical understanding and crucially soft skills to grow on the corporate ladder.


Last month Alistair Allan and I chatted with Paul Cook and Simon Sheaf, Practice Leaders at Grant Thornton to hear about their perspective on the student scenario. What followed over the conversation were inspiring thoughts on leadership skills, valuable career advice, soft skills insights and psssst - some tried and tested exam techniques too! Read on folks...


About the interviewers:
Paul Cook is the Practice Leader of Life Insurance segment at Grant Thornton UK LLP with over 20 years of experience in the life and pensions actuarial market; previously Paul has worked with Watson Wyatt, Lane Clark & Peacock, Ernst & Young and Andersen

Simon Sheaf is the Practice Leader of General Insurance segment at Grant Thornton UK LLP with more than 21 years of experience in general insurance industry; previously Simon has worked with Travellers Insurance co Ltd and the Tillinghast practice at Towers Perrin


What made you think of becoming an Actuary?

Paul: The usual story – I was good at maths, got interested and graduated with maths in 1987. I always wanted to work in a career that involved a professional qualification. So I went back and took the actuarial exams and have been lucky since then.
Simon: I was first made aware of the actuarial professional by a teacher when I was still at school. I did maths at Oxford and at that time for people doing maths at Oxford it was the most common career choice. Additionally I was tempted by the possibility of using my mathematical ability, that it was getting involved into to the business & financial world and was a reasonably well paid job. I always thought that I ought to be in a profession where I could acquire a professional qualification. And obviously Actuarial qualification was held in fairly very high esteem and as such appealed to me.


What did you do after your graduation?

Paul: I went to Sun Life in Bristol straight after my graduation. I was told not to join consultancy as there’s far too much work and you won’t get time to study. This was during the life office boom time. I worked there for a year in their pensions department and this was probably one of my most frustrating time of my life because I was used to wanting to solving problems all my life – wanting to contribute and the life office environment in particular was frankly not totally welcoming my well established structure. Next I worked in a small pensions consulting firm – Bain Clarkson. Now that’s something I would say to students- it’s not about the way you work, but who you work with. 

Back then no one had a PC, it was all mainframe computers. If you wanted to do a spreadsheet, it was literally a piece of paper. Bain Clarkson got their first desktop that sat in the corner for 6 months so much so that the battery went dead and we had to charge it up. I got to work on the real basics – in Excel programs which have still never really got updated even after 20 years. But atleast we worked through them using first principles in a diverse range of pension’s schemes which served me well for the exams as well and a lot of the problems came up in the exams so it worked.


Simon, when you graduated from Oxford, did you go straight into an actuarial firm? 

Simon: Yes I did. While I was at university I applied to a mixture of insurance and consulting companies. But I was always more attracted towards consulting. I applied to varied places, got a number of job offers and selected the one at Towers Perrin. I went in with no exams and no exemptions.


While you were studying – what was your study technique?

Simon: I studied every day and every week if I wasn’t working. If I had to keep some social engagements I’d do it, but if I wasn’t doing anything I made sure I was studying. My aim was to get through the exams, even while I was working long hours. I also made sure I took plenty of time off before the exams to make sure I was properly prepared.

Paul: I believe every student has a different study and exam success technique. I have coached students to help them qualify during final exams. There are no set rules for studying. Here at Grant Thornton we have a very high exam pass rate as we encourage students to start early on. As time goes by life gets harder and exams get harder too. It’s important to work hard and get the exams out of your way as soon as you can. 

Also when you are writing the later exams, the techniques you have used in your earlier exams may not work for the later exams.


Paul, why is that?

Paul: It’s mainly because the earlier exams are numerical and if you are very good at numbers you might be caught out writing passages in the later exams. They are rooted very much into industry practice so it’s more like doing an economics instead of a mathematics paper. How you communicate and present yourself in solving these problems become more important in the later exams. I was quite lucky looking back as I was working in a small environment where I spent a lot of time communicating which helped me a lot to get through the later exams.


Do you think Soft skills training are to be embodied from or into training from the institute?

Paul: Actually, I think this is the role of a good employer to provide. Exams should really be for actuarial training. We are interested in recruiting bright people who are going to get through exams. What we are going to give them is training in soft skills – so they learn about team dynamics, selling skills, persuasion skills, project management but they have got to learn these experientially. You won’t learn them through text or writing exams, you got to learn them from people who are different from you and become aware how to tackle.


Is it important for students at entry level, apart from training and study support, to be looking at potential soft skills training at employment?

Paul: I think this really depends on the student. In reality first 5 years should be to focus on getting through their exams. That’s going to make a big difference and then they can think how do I shape my skills? Also, I think there are some incredibly bright students getting through exams but could actually benefit from added capacity in their learning beyond the books and acquire soft skills. For example sometimes the brightest people need these skills because probably through their lives they are just told how to get around with everything. Actually these skills will help them to get along with people. I think some people yes, some people no.


There is an ongoing debate about joining consultancy and not having enough time for studying. How did you manage to the demands of working and setting aside time to study for exams?

Simon: It seemed very clear to me that despite the fact that people in consultancies get less time to study, people from consultancies get around with exams faster than people from the insurance companies. And that was my impression when I spoke to people in consultancies who seemed to be getting through with exams faster than people at insurance companies. Peer pressure at consultancies help enormously and plays an important role. Frankly, I didn’t want to fall behind everybody else and it was part of the motivation to get through the examinations quickly. Considering the graduate intake in consultancies I thought they all did reasonably fine – although all of them tend to struggle a bit in trying to keeping up with their peers. 

Paul: I think it’s changed in huge amounts over the years. When I was with Watson Wyatt we only had 200 people and perhaps back then we were recruiting like everyone else. Now consulting is probably the major source for actuarial students that then go to life office, so now it’s almost the reverse role.

Do you think in a consultancy, actuarial skills are more important than communication and team skills? Where do you think the balance lies – if there exists one?

Paul: Again, it depends on what grade you are. If you really wanted to do well in a consulting environment then I think there will always be a bias towards your social skills, softer skills, relationship skills, management skills etc. In mainframe actuarial environment people will come to you because you are a good actuary and that’s how it works.
I think different environment suits different people at different stages of their careers. We are a very different consulting firm to Delloite, WW, and Milliman global. They might look & feel the same outside, but inside it can be very different.


Paul, you have worked with some of the bigger employers. What was it that you saw in GT that you thought you can make a mark here?

Paul: Its straight forward – because it’s a big firm that hasn’t yet made a mark on actuarial consulting, so I absolutely believe there is an opportunity to do that. GT has got a decent brand, decent infrastructure. There’s no real reason at all why I can’t have a decent actuarial practice. And that’s what really attracted me – to build something. In 10-15 years time GT getting recognized as an actuarial provider. I like starting up and getting things going.


Simon, did you make the decision to work in General insurance consulting straight out of university?

Simon: Actually, my company had made that decision for me. I’d feel really stupid to retrospect but when I applied I was asked which area I would like to work in – this preference scenario was slightly petrifying for me. If I said I wanted to work in Life then I would have filtered all life places to work with. And to some extent it was difficult to filter a preference because I had no experience at any of the various areas, so I didn’t express any preference at all. They put me in non-life and I have always been very happy ever since.


The pensions review a few years ago had a massive impact on the market. Then there was mortgage miss-selling and now the solvency 2. Do you think there is something waiting on the wings after the solvency 2 calms down?

Simon: I think it’s going to be IFRS on Phase II, the new accounting standards for insurance which are going to involve significant changes for most insurance companies. And that’s the next thing that’ll need fixing after solvency II.


When advising students either at university or at the entry level, would you advise them to make a particular focus on big projects coming through as their career path or to make sure they are surrounded by experienced people who they can learn from?

Simon: I would absolutely advise them to join a place where there are lots of people where they can learn from. I always valued joining a relatively large actuarial team with lots of students and qualified experienced actuaries from whom I can learn from.


What advice would you give to students today who are considering an actuarial career or have decided to embark on one?

Simon - Get the exams out of their way as quick as they can! You get to a point when it can hinder your career and make it harder for you to progress. And there are various people who have taken time off for their exams and also times when people come beneath and raise above them. So I think the best thing you can do is just put your head down and get the exams out of the way. And then your career path starts to open up and puts you to choose where you go next.

Also talking about it, I have met some very successful people in their careers who never finished their exams. But you are in a better state with clearing exams to make decisions, that’s it.


So when you are recruiting in your graduate intake here, what are you looking for in a potential employee?

Simon: We clearly are looking for students with the intellectual capacity to get through the exams and also to do the work in the office. But apart from that, what we are really interested in is the soft skills. We are interested in people whom we can develop into consultants. We are interested in people with clear communication skills. People who come across well with clients. Be self-motivated and be a self-starter. But also people are capable of fitting into a team and getting to know well the people around them.


While recruiting students straight out of campus do you feel the universities are doing well in training them to become a good part of your actuarial team?

Paul: We have some very brilliant students and I have been fortunate in my career last 15yeras to have actually taught them. So of the best students I have worked with at consultancies temptation would be to say universities have done a pretty good job there. We pick students from a wide variety of universities and hope universities would give them enough structure and discipline to get through the actuarial exams.

What I think students these days have – which I didn’t – is a much broader perspective on life with the internet & travel and much wider exposure to the world. We look at all our students qualify and feel proud for them. We got a really good cross section of people and I genuinely am a big fan of that in terms of how problems are solved because it means that people will come up with solutions from different angles. And you see that they approach problems with insights from how they have been brought up and we all learn from that.

We don’t try and put people in a particular shape. From my perspective, universities have done a good job – but it matters how much the students gain from them.

Simon: We take students based on their qualification and most happen to have done some actuarial course. It seems to me that the universities have done a good job in terms of what is expected from them - which is helping people to get degrees. I wouldn't necessarily expect them to train students in soft skills. Because I expect that’s what we'll do. We look for students with potential which probably most actuarial employees tend to have fairly high standard for the people we take on. And by and large they do really good work for us and are developed into excellent actuaries. I am not sure if I expect universities to train the students in ways that it helps to make them into actuaries. I'd expected them to give some intellectual foundation and capability to learn well to get through their actuarial exams.


Nivedita Hanra
Editor –

** The views expressed are Mr. Cook and Mr. Sheaf’s own and not necessarily aligned to those of the working party or Grant Thornton. interviewed the gentlemen in July 2012 at their Finsbury Square, London office.